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After finishing Draft 0 last Monday, I’ve spent this past couple of days up to my chin in primary sources, thanks to the wonder that is British History Online.

I love BHO to distraction, really: heaps and loads of papers, maps, records, transcriptions, scans… most of it free, or to be had through a very affordable yearly subscription. Have a look at their catalogue:  a historical novelist’s equivalent of a toy shop!

Among other things, is the Calendar of State Papers for Scotland, where I’m happily digging for my characters’ voices, mindsets, and quirks. And while I do, I come across unrelated gems like the deposition of William Keith, gentleman valet of the chamber to King James VI, on the First of June 1583. Keith was traveling North with a pair of returning Scottish ambassadors and, finding himself alone on the outskirts of Durham, was accosted by five Englishmen, clearly up to no good.

[…] Marmaduke Hedworth used this language, “canst thow tell me quhat man this is?” meaning the ambassador. The deponent finding him something lusty in appearance, “at leist mair hamelie with him nor they were of acquentance,” answered him, “I can not tell.” Whereupon the other replied, “be the messe thow art of his company.” “It may be sa,” said the deponent. “Speakis thow English or Scottis?” said Hedworth. Answered, “I speake Scottis as I can.” “Then,” said he, “I persave thow art a very Scottis vilain.” “There thow leis,” said the deponent, “I am a gentil man.” Upon this Hedworth fetching a “straik” of his “wande” at the deponent’s face, he warded it with his, and “strykis” at him again. But Hedworth drawing near to him “chekkis” him twice with his hand under his chin, and “mynting” to his dagger, swore that he would thrust it through him. Thereupon the deponent said to him, “gif thow were a gude fallow thow wald lycht now, and let the laif stand by; weill knawis thow that I am na partie to the, quhilk gif I were thow durst not for the hart do me sic injurie.” “Go the way, vilain, with thy prattling,” said Hedworth, “or be the body of God thow salt smart for it.”

At this point Keith understandably decides that he doesn’t like his odds against five men and, “regretting in his heart that he was there alone”, turns tail – which he describes as leaving Hedworth and his company… Anyway, he soon comes across “three of his own company”, and they all go to find the obnoxious Englishmen. With his back now covered, Keith…

“…accosting Hedworth, enquired of him if he would bide by the words he spoke to him when he was alone. The other answered he would. “Then,” said the deponent, “lycht, for I am to prove it upoun the that thow leis.” In the meantime the other, Robert Bankis, being “lychtit” with a drawn sword in his hand, bids the deponent, who likewise was on foot, stand aback, “and with the wande fetchis a straik upoun his very schin bane,” before the other was any way “warre” of him, and therewithal redoubling another at the deponent’s head, he warded it upon the guards of his sword. Hereupon one Robert Hamilton, one of the three who met the deponent, seeing him wounded in the leg, interchanging two or three strokes with Bankis, hurts him at last with a stroke athwart his breast, “at the quhilk he shrinkis and retiris him to the toun.”


All this time Hedworth, being lighted, with a drawn sword was stayed by one Andrew Gray, one of the said three. One of the other Englishmen struck behind at Robert Hamilton and hurt him lightly in the back. Whereupon the inhabitants of Durham, convening from all parts upon them with their staves and other “wapynnis,” compelled them to withdraw into a house that was “maist ewish,” where they defended themselves till the postmaster came to them and sent for an alderman, who presented them in surety before the magistrate of the town…

The magistrate sends Keith, Gray and Hamilton on their way, battered but triumphant, and promises retribution on Hedworth and his cronies. Whether this really happens afterwards, I have no idea, nor is it overly clear just what Hedworth thought he was doing in the first place. Apparently, when Andrew Gray – who at the moment was holding him at bay at swordspoint- told him that it wasn’t the wisest course to bother men traveling with a Royal safe-conduct, Heworth’s answer was:

“Tushe, both for thee and thy saufconduct, I cair not for it.”

So… who knows? Alcohol-fed braggadocio? Some previous encounter Keith and Gray did not think politic to mention in their deposition? More sinister intentions towards the Scottish ambassadors on their way home? I’d love to know, and I’ll see whether any more of this turns up as I read on – and, if it doesn’t, I’ll make up my own tale, because, really…

Genuine 16th century swashbuckling, complete with clubs, swords, Scottish-flavoured banter, and the townspeople running to the rescue: it doesn’t get much more perfect than this, does it?